Email this review


From British author Neil (The Possession of Delia Sutherland, 1994, etc.), a subtle and mostly satisfying approach to a well-worn topic—child abuse and, here, its devastating effect on two sisters. Responsible Robbie, pining to escape her family, decides to leave London for a temporary post as physical therapist to a stroke victim in Louisiana. And just in time: Barely two weeks before her departure, her older sister Laura, plainly beaten up, made a midnight appearance at Robbie’s flat with her young son Will in tow and their doddering mother Esther soon to follow. Janvier, the estate outside New Orleans where Robbie flees, is an idyllic paradise and home to the patient Raoul, a charismatic bon vivant who takes an immediate liking to Robbie and integrates her into his southern clan: Patrick, his divorced nephew; Patrick’s two emotionally wounded children; and the devoted domestic staff. As a birthday surprise for Robbie, Raoul and Patrick send for Esther and the beautiful Laura, who charms the children and bewitches Patrick. In an unsuspected turn of events, Laura and Esther stay on at Janvier while Robbie returns to her practice in London. Meanwhile, Laura, married to Patrick, is transformed: her masochistic tendencies and the suppressed memories of the past fade as she ascends into perfect motherhood. But, still, their —history of silence— will prove Laura and Robbie’s undoing. Vague memories of their childhood haunt Robbie, for example: when, bitter at being abandoned by her husband for “the woman Jane,” Esther sought to burden Jane by sending her two girls to stay with their father, despite her (correct) assumption that they were being sexually abused there. Now, Laura begins to crumble, bringing Robbie to her side, but too late—as we learn in a moving if strangely abrupt denouement. Instead of dwelling on the salient details of childhood abuse, Neil focuses on its lingering damage, in an affecting narrative about the long arm of the past.

Pub Date: Sept. 15th, 1998
ISBN: 0-385-49178-6
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1998